During WNXP’s last conversation with Ghanaian-born, Australian-based artist Genesis Owusu in 2021, he spoke about his plan for world domination. Now, with the release of his sophomore effort Struggler, it seems he is still on that path.
After the success of his debut Smiling With No Teeth, Owusu toured the world, opening for major indie superstars like Tame Impala and Paramore. He racked up late-night talk show performances and became the first rapper to win the Australian Recording Industry Association Music Award for Album of the Year.
Owusu’s follow-up is primed for success. While Struggler features much of the same ragtag band from his debut, it also marks his first opportunity to work with a team of producers. Together, they created the sonic score to his story about a roach trying to avoid being stepped on. That might sound silly, but the album actually has a deeper and more personal meaning behind it.
On the Record with Genesis Owusu:
Marquis Munson: The last time we spoke, a lot more hair than you have right now. What went into the decision to cut your hair?
Genesis Owusu: I just felt like it was time for a new era. I had these long locs for seven years. I’d done Smiling with No Teeth, I’d done the tour in Australia and in the United States, and I had just finished the tour in Europe. The day I got back from Europe, I was so jetlagged, and it was like 2 a.m. and I was trying to go to sleep. I got up to go to the bathroom and I just looked in the mirror and I was like, ‘It’s time.’ I grabbed the scissors and did the chop. It just felt like the time. It felt like that chapter was officially closed and it was time to start moving differently, looking different, and it was time to start making different music.
MM: When you saw that first loc in the sink, what went through your mind? What was going through your head when you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m really doing this.’
GO: Yeah, that was it [Laughs]. Like, ‘Oh, this is real, damn.’ I kept the locks in a bag for like a week after just in case I had second thoughts and wanted to sew them back in or something.
MM: The last time we spoke, it was about your debut album Smiling With No Teeth, and you talked about that album’s theme discussed battles against racism and depression. How did you come up with the concept for this new album, Struggler?
GO: I wrote a story. There’s that old saying about how you have your whole life to write your first album and only a year or two to write your second. I felt like I had put my life experience into that first album. Then COVID happened, I did some touring, then it was time to write the second album. The inspiration that I took from my personal life experience, I felt like I had to find another world to draw from. I started looking into books and plays. I was interested in this absurdist literature and absurdist plays. I ended up writing a story that was in the same genre as that. It was about a roach that runs and runs, trying not to get stepped on by God. The roach is symbolic of how I felt we as humans were moving at the time.
In Australia, we’d just gone through bushfires, the whole world had just gone through pandemic, economic downfall around the world. In comparison we as humans, I felt this general air of we were noticing how out of control we were of the situation and how big than us everything is. But all these things that should have logically been the end of us just weren’t and we kept on pushing and kept on struggling like these little bugs that just can’t be crushed. So, the roach was metaphoric of humanity, and the God character was metaphoric of this huge universe around us, this huge, all powerful figure. So, I wrote the story, and then the album just became, ‘Okay, what would that story sound like?’
MM: For you, is this album a continuation of Smiling With No Teeth? Because the closing track on that album, “Bye Bye,” sort of signifies this ongoing journey. When I listen to the opening track on this album, “Leaving the Light,” it’s this story of survival and persevering. Are there parallels between the two or do you see them as two separate stories?
GO: I think both. I see them as two separate stories, but I feel like there are certain themes that run parallel. When I was writing this album, I kind of felt like an author writing a book just because of where my inspirations for this album came from. When you look at a particular author’s work, once they’ve done a big, massive work, you can tell their style and what they like to talk about, even if every individual story is different. I feel like maybe once I amass a bigger discography, you’ll probably see that same vibe where everything is separate, but you can tell that it has that Genesis Owusu je ne sais quoi.
GO: With art in general, even if it’s a story and it’s not an autobiographical thing of what’s happening in that artist’s time, it always ends up being a snapshot of what’s going on in that artist’s life or the times around them. Even if you’re writing a story about a roach, the themes you want to tackle, you can tell that they’re influenced by that time around them. All art just feels like a snapshot of the time that artist was in at that moment.
MM: I’ve noticed this. The second song on Smiling With No Teeth is “The Other Black Dog,” and the second song on this album is “The Roach.” Basically, describing the two characters of each story. Was that by design or am I being too observant on the track list of this album [Laughs]?
GO: You are being really observant [Laughs]. I wish I could claim that. I’m about to start claiming that. But that’s really observant. I think that goes back to the whole style thing. I was trying to tell the story on Smiling With No Teeth as well and I think there’s a certain story arc and formula of telling a story that I like to tell, and I guess it goes in that direction. You have that introduction that sets the tone and the atmosphere of what’s going on. Then you start introducing the characters, then you start introducing their situations. So I guess it’s that same formula of storytelling.
MM: Where does “G.T.F.O.” and “Get Inspired,” two songs not on the album, fall in the overall story?
GO: I see them as the prelude arc of Struggler. It’s kind of throwing some little hints in the water as to what’s going on. I did that before the last album as well with certain singles that I made beforehand and the artwork. The very first artwork I made for a single in like 2018 was this decrepit smile with gold teeth. And I feel like it’s kind of the same thing. Once I get an idea of where I want to go, I start putting the little hints in the air just to make the universe more expansive.
MM: Going back to the opening track on Struggler, “Leaving the Light.” How does this song set the tone for the rest of the album?
GO: If I were to imagine the world ending right behind us and you trying to sprint away from that, you trying to outrun the end of the world, that’s how I feel like it would sound. That’s kind of the tone of the album. Just trying to outrun forces that are apparently so much grander than you, that you shouldn’t even have a chance against, but somehow you are out stepping this thing. It sets the tone in its literal pace, the speed of the song, its intensity, I think that’s how it sets the tone for the album, because that’s how the album progresses narratively.
MM: You made your debut album with a ragtag band of musicians that you never met before, your producer set it up for you, and then you jammed with them in this bedroom sized studio for six days. So, what was the approach when making the music for Struggler this time around?
GO: It was a lot spottier. Luckily the first album went well, and I was able to tour the world from it. But it was also a completely different way that I had to learn to make music. I didn’t realize how much of a luxury it was making music, having no one know who you are. With that first album, I had fans in Australia, but no one was banging on my doors asking, ‘where’s the next album?’ And it was made during COVID time, so I had all this space and time to create with no other distractions. Whereas with this one, because I was still touring off the back of the first album, I had to find time to make it. I was going from the U.S. to Europe, playing in Lithuania. I had to find time in Los Angeles and in other places to carve out the music before the next show.
So, there were still songs made from that first band featured on the first album that made it to this album. But then a lot of it was done in sessions while I was in L.A. with producers that my publisher suggested and other people work that I admired and thought would be an interesting collaboration. It was a bit more all over the place. I had a time in L.A. in between touring for two months, and I went through this producer speed dating. Every day, I met with a different set of producers, and we made tracks for two months, which was intense. There were some wacky characters for sure. After those two months, I could really whittle down who I felt I clicked with the most. Those became the cast of characters that created the album with me.
MM: What did you take away from that process, working with these new producers?
GO: I think it was quite a task of push and pull, give, and take, where we were trying to combine our worlds. A lot of these producers that I was working with are more experienced in the music industry than I am. They’ve made hits, they’ve made huge songs, huge albums. But I feel like even though I’m still quite new to this whole thing, I know myself and I know what I want, what I want to say, and how I want to say it. So, it was trying to create something greater than the sum of our parts and fuse our two worlds together to create something even grander, cooler, or higher evolved than I had beforehand. I think it was just cool just figuring out that process and knowing when to step in and be like, ‘No, we should turn it this way,’ and knowing when to lean on their expertise and experience. I think doing led to some cool stuff.
MM: What was that writing process like during making this record? When did you have the time to just sit down and write these stories?
GO: I had to do it on the road or just any time in between where there would be a bit of a break. Then I had to be like, ‘Okay, now time to write.’ Which was very different to how I was able to do it before, where I was able to be like, ‘writing time, touring time.’ It had to intertwined together, which was honestly a bit of a hassle because I was used to having it kind of relaxed. It was a hard time trying to figure that out. But it’s like so is life. That’s how the world is moving at this point. I just had to do it any chance I got.
MM: You describe these songs as chapters to the story, and through the midway point of the album, we get to “Tied Up.” What was the inspiration behind that song?
GO: I guess in the story, it’s this roach running from God. Throughout the story, we hit these mental points of like, ‘What’s the point? What am I doing here? Is there a point? Oh, my God, what if there’s not a point? Maybe I could make my own point. Maybe I just have to figure it out myself.’ That’s the general trajectory and “Tied Up” is the chapter where they’re like, ‘Okay, maybe the world around me is so chaotic. Maybe I could figure this out by going inwards and changing my perspective on things. Maybe that’s how I survive through this.’ So “Tied Up” is that bit of light sonically as well, where it’s trying to put a nicer, prettier light on the fire and brimstone you might see around you and the chorus, “Feel tied up, but I’m trying to be a better man.” Trying to change your internal perspectives to make the external a bit brighter.
MM: I have to give you props for the visuals for this new record. What or even who do you credit for that? And where do these ideas come from for the visuals for this new album?
GO: All the visuals, all the music videos have been in collaboration with this artist from New Zealand her name is Lisa Reihana. There was this new Museum of Contemporary Art that opened in Sydney where my manager lives, and he went to the opening, and she had this huge installation during the opening. My manager saw it and immediately sent me these pictures and videos and he’s like, ‘We need to find her now.’ He ended up finding her contact we sent her a bunch of music with some from the past and stuff from this album. She really liked it, which was sick. So, we got on some Zoom calls, and I started telling her about the story that I’d come up with about the roach and what the inspirations were and the themes. I think a lot of the esthetics and a lot of the stuff that I wanted to talk about was in line with the art that she was already making as well. It was really cool because on Smiling With No Teeth, I was creative directing most things, and had my hand in every pot, which was really cool and exciting. But this was really cool because I got to do what I do best and then let a seasoned artist do what she does best. So, I wrote the story, I wrote the words, I wrote the concepts and gave it to her to revision in her mind and how she would do it. Easy to say that she did an amazing job.
MM: How did you shoot these videos especially for “Leaving the Light” and ‘Tied Up?” I’m very curious how this process works.
GO: I’m in the same spot that whole video [Laughs]. It’s all just greenscreen. I was on a turntable that spun me around and I’m just performing on this one spot for like eight-hour days, or ten-hour days even. I’m just performing on this one spot and then she just works her magic. She and the rest of the team, of course. Honestly, both were some of the easiest music videos that I’ve ever had to shoot. Then she makes it look like these million-dollar, huge budget, crazy works of art as she does.
MM: You’re putting a lot in these music videos. But I always tell people you put a lot into your performances as well. It’s very theatrical, like performing arts watching you perform. Last year you performed here in Nashville at the Basement East and you are coming back October 29th to the same venue. Have you thought about how you want to transform these songs into a live performance?
GO: I’m in the process of getting out all the kinks and bumps right now and making it perfect. I won’t spoil it too much, but the theatrics and the storytelling won’t go away. Figuring out how to pull out the grandeur in any room, no matter how big or small. So, it’s going to be a great show. Talking to my band back in Australia, seeing what we can do there. It’s going to be theatrical, explosive, and as chaotic as ever.
MM: You’ve been touring with some big artists from be Paramore, Tame Impala, Glass Animals. What was it like touring with those artists and have you gotten any advice along the way from being around these people?
GO: In terms of advice, not really. I feel like they all came to me with this level of respect where they saw what I was doing and they didn’t Lil Bro me or anything like that, which was really awesome. It was more like, ‘We see you and we want to give you a platform because we think what you’re doing is really cool,’ and I’m very humbled by it. We got on the Paramore tour because Hayley asked for us specifically, which was crazy. I learned on the tour the drummer’s partner was a big fan and then she told the drummer, the drummer told the whole band. That’s how it came about. It was an amazing tour. We played Madison Square Garden, I thought it would be a long time until I got to play there, but it was insane.
I think the best thing about doing all these tours is the headline acts are so different to what I do, and it lets me keep pulling inspiration from these very different places. Which I feel helps me build into a greater artist because I’m not just drawing from the same well or looking at the same source material. I get to look at how not only artists from these different genres, but how fans from these different genres interact and react to certain things. I get to analyze and pull from that and make my art greater because of it. Big love to all the people that brought me on stage with them. Kevin Parker, Glass Animals. Paramore, love you very much.